Our first attempt to visit the First female speaker of the Edo State House of Assembly, Madam Elizabeth Ativie was successful, halleluyah. In my line of work, visiting and rubbing shoulders with the people who make laws, or who execute those laws or who have some kind of control how public monies are spent, is part of the process of engagement. Engagement in the Civil Society environment has a tripartite character thus: there is the intellectual battlement where we juxtapose our policies and thinking by theirs, the advocacy level where we seek to sit at table with these very important people and discuss issues and there is the level where we take to the streets if the first two methods fail. These modes of interaction help drive our themes and sub-themes. Gone are the dog-gone days when we see decision-makers and policy people in terms of the third person plural (they) and they seeing us as in the subjective case (them). I remember on one occasion when some of our development partners visited us from Europe, and I can recall one of them asking the government official we took him to visit if they know us. The official responded that he knows us very well, and went on to highlight our antecedents. That, according to the European visitor, is what he needed to be convinced that we have moved from the 1.0 mindset to the 2.0 kind of thinking – 1.0 thinking is vertical while the 2.0 is horizontal, is innovative and considers what may not be considered by everyone.
On the other hand however, there still many people who assume that if you hobnob with government officials, then you are compromised. We face this problem always, particularly from most of our brethren and sisthren in the work for human rights, anti-corruption and poverty alleviation. I have heard it on many fora that because we no longer throw stones at government, it must be that we have collected monies from them when we go to them to engage them. Therefore, that particular first to the first female speaker to the Edo State house of Assembly was not actually a tea party or a visit for the sake of visiting the first woman speaker of the Edo State House of Assembly. We usually embark on these visits, and the last one took place at the premises of the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs on Monday June 6, 2016 at the Ministry’s office, Federal Secretariat Abuja. The purpose of the meeting was to pursue a USAID Strengthening Advocacy and Civic Engagement, SACE, project. Of recent, there have been questions about the relevance of bodies and institutions like the BRACED Commission, the Ministry of the Niger Delta, and the NDDC, in the light of agitations that the Niger Delta needs more money and more Federal presence. Our mission therefore during that advocacy meeting with the officials of the Niger Delta Ministry in Abuja was to let them know how Niger Deltans think of their work so far, with respect to rural electrification, roads, health centres infrastructure for schools and the like. Of course the perception of most Niger Deltans with respect to the role and performance of these institutions is low, but what is of greater significance to this discussion is the processes involved with the arrangement of these advocacy visits. Today many public officials – Senators, parliamentarians, heads of MDAs and parastatals - whose telephone numbers have been made public through the Freedom of Information Act 2011 so as to ensure that they are accessible and are closer to the people who elected them, have all turned off these phone numbers. If you have need to speak with a Senator or the man/woman who represents you in parliament, you must go meet him in Abuja and surmount a nearly impregnable wall of bureaucracy and protocol. I have tried to get in touch with the very forward-looking ones among them – Ben Murray-Bruce, James Manager, Peter Nwaboshi and Abike Dabiri – mostly to no avail and probably because they are shy to talk to me about their work.
Therefore, I would say that for us at ANEEJ, meeting the first female speaker of a prominent policy formulation institution like the Edo State House of Assembly was a rare privilege and a very special occasion. With just a phone call from our executive director, the meeting with Madam Speaker commenced, and it is indeed a true demonstration of how governance should work. These days, those elected to serve see themselves as demigods to be served while the rest of us as the talakawa, poor workers to hew wood and fetch water for them. Bread for the World BftW, an ANEEJ partner is a German-based non-Government Organization paying a two-day work visit to ANEEJ from the 8th – 9th June, 2016. This organization primarily focuses on developmental projects in Africa. A key feature of their projects is the close cooperation with local, often church related partner organisations. Upon request, Bread for the World provides African countries with specialists and volunteers. Through lobbying, public relations and education in Germany and Europe, they seek to influence political decisions in favour of the poor in Africa and to raise awareness for the necessity of a sustainable way of life. This BftW team comprising Rev. Jürgen Klein, Consultant to Religion and Churches in Africa and Herr Magnussen Mathias was led by Herr Jan Papiendieck programme officer for BftW. In the coming year however, Bread for the World would be focusing on 6-thematic topics to include: food security, rural development, environmental protection and preservation, strengthening CSOs to promote human rights and peace and conflict resolution. The Bread for the World Team took time to visit us, their partners working in the area of poverty alleviation, human rights and anti-corruption.
But the highlight of the visit by Bread for the World and ANEEJ to Madam Speaker was in the opening remarks by both the Rev Ugolor and Herr Jan Papiendieck of Bread for the World. Rev. Ugolor told the speaker that one of the reasons why there are tensions in the Niger Delta today is the question of the control of the public monies and finances. All too often, public officials are much concerned with dipping their hands in the public purse, a situation which led to the impeachment of Madam Speaker, Elizabeth Ativie’s predecessor. ‘You can, and will be remembered for the people-oriented programmes you initiate instead of the number of largesse doled out to political friends and cronies’, Rev Ugolor said to Madam Speaker. On his part, Herr Jan Papiendieck raised the critical issue of government funding for NGOs. In some countries of Europe, governments fund NGOs from the public purse. In most cases as well, these donations are from church offerings. It is from these foreign public purses and church offerings that most of our NGOs get support to work in a non-governmental capacity for our people. But the curious thing is that most of the countries which fund our work have issues with poverty and hunger as well. Why then would they be willing to spend monies in a Nigeria where a whopping sum like $2.1billion meant for procurement of arms goes into the pockets of public officials? ‘Would the Edo State House of Assembly and as a matter of fact the National Assembly be willing to fund Nigerian NGOs?’ Herr Papiendieck wanted to know.
It is to the credit of Madam Speaker to have offered help in the area of collaboration with ANEEJ in the area of capacity building for the EDHA. But matters relating to the funding of Nigerian NGOs by the Nigerian state would be a matter for discussion on a later date.